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Nesi’s Notes: Sept. 19

Ted Nesi
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Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com and follow @tednesi on Twitter.

1. The politics surrounding when and how to fill Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s U.S. Supreme Court seat is already convulsing the country, but the news of her death also calls for a pause to reflect on a historic figure in American public life. So I asked Rhode Island’s chief federal judge — Jack McConnell — for his appraisal of her achievements. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg, though small in stature, was a giant for justice,” McConnell told me Friday night. “She is the author of modern protections for women against gender discrimination. She ruled with empathy knowing that understanding the human experience was the way to justice. She will be missed by all who believe that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” He added, “God bless RBG.” As for the politics — watch for Senator Whitehouse to be a prominent voice in the coming confirmation battle due to his status as one of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s senior Democrats.

2. The Rhode Island Political Cooperative members set to arrive at the State House in January have a message: they don’t want to play by the old rules. Appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, two of the primary winners who beat incumbents — Senate candidates Tiara Mack and Cynthia Mendes — both said they will not support Dominick Ruggerio for Senate president. “Absolutely not,” Mendes said. “What we’ve heard across the state, not just in my district but really across the state, is that there’s a hope for new leadership. There’s a hope for bold and brave leadership that’s going to listen to the people.” Yet Mendes demurred when asked who should replace Ruggerio, highlighting one obstacle for all leadership challenges — how to convert dissatisfaction with the current occupant of an office into shared support for someone new. Ruggerio’s team has already begun working to shore up his standing to ensure he is on solid footing when the new Assembly convenes next year. And an incumbent leader has many tools at his disposal to reward those who stay loyal — witness how Speaker Mattiello managed to woo back a number of members of the “Reform Caucus” last year. Yet even if the names on the third-floor doors stay the same, it doesn’t mean nothing will change. More than half the senators who take the oath in January will have been elected since 2012, a generation after the Senate president arrived on Smith Hill. Insiders have taken to describing a “New School” of members who aren’t necessarily aligned ideologically but who all support a professionalized, open legislative process. That cultural shift will make it increasingly difficult for any Senate president to operate successfully using an old-school, top-down model of leadership.

3. While much of the commentary about Tiara Mack’s defeat of Senator Metts in Providence’s District 6 has focused on his outspoken opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, that wasn’t the top issue Mack says she heard about from voters unhappy with the incumbent. Instead, it was his sponsorship of the 2011 voter ID law “that lots of folks in the community were more upset about than his social conservative views,” Mack said. “They were more upset about his stance on voter ID laws in Rhode Island. I think that was some of the unexpected sentiments that people were bringing into the races.”

4. One thing Senate President Ruggerio will need to keep in mind as he works to retain control of his caucus: gender balance. The two most powerful committee gavels are becoming available due to the defeat of Finance Chairman Billy Conley and the retirement of Judiciary Chairwoman Erin Lynch Prata. Lynch Prata is arguably the most prominent woman in Dominick Ruggerio’s inner circle other than Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin. And with Finance likely to go to either Ryan Pearson or Lou DiPalma, Ruggerio will be under pressure to choose a woman to succeed Lynch Prata, particularly as women make up nearly half the chamber. If Ruggerio decides to pick the next Judiciary chair from the committee’s current roster, that means the two candidates for the job would be Cindy Coyne and Dawn Euer. (Ruggerio will also have one other prestigious title to hand out come January, since Harold Metts won’t be back as president pro tempore.)

5. On this week’s Newsmakers, House Minority Leader Blake Filippi said he hopes the GOP can pick up five or six House seats in November, led by the comeback bids of Patricia Morgan and Anthony Giarrusso. But Adam Myers, a political science professor at PC, thinks Republicans are still leaving a lot on the table: he points out that 15 Democrats are running unopposed in districts where Hillary Clinton got less than 55% of the vote four years ago. “Because few voters split their tickets these days, any Republican running in a district that Trump won (or came close to winning) stands at least a fighting chance, no matter how talented, well-known, or well-resourced the Democratic candidate is,” Myers says. “If Republicans are serious about making Rhode Island a two-party state, they simply must find candidates to run in all of these districts in the future.” Yet Republican National Committeeman Steve Frias, who waged two hard-fought but unsuccessful campaigns to unseat Nick Mattiello in GOP-friendly District 15, says the picture is more complex than that. “With just a few exceptions, the seats listed by Professor Myers are held by incumbents who are either supported by Right to Life or the NRA, or have large campaign accounts,” Frias told me. “The professor has no idea of the challenge of recruiting a Republican to run against a Democrat who is supported by culturally conservative groups such as the Right to Life and NRA and/or has a large campaign account. These types of races are very tough for a Republican to win. Trust me. I know this, first hand.”

6. Blake Filippi is a rare example of the reverse phenomenon in Rhode Island: a Republican who holds a Democratic-friendly seat, in his case House District 36. Filippi — who was an independent when he beat incumbent Democrat Donna Walsh in 2014 but later joined the GOP — represents all of Block Island and Charlestown plus parts of Westerly and South Kingstown. Hillary Clinton received 54% of the vote there, while Donald Trump barely topped 40%; nevertheless, Filippi says he’s voting to re-elect Trump on Nov. 3 due to policies such as trade and foreign policy. “I don’t like a lot of the stuff, the rhetoric,” he said on Newsmakers, “but a lot of the people I dislike and institutions I dislike hate Donald Trump.”

7. Clip and save: Eli Sherman maps the November battlefield for General Assembly.

8. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “The first day of school is always full of excitement and nerves, but it has perhaps never been as highly anticipated as it was this year, when thousands of masked-up students and teachers returned to Rhode Island public school classrooms for the first time in six months. Reviews were a mixed bag. Plenty of parents and students were happy to get back to a ‘normal’ routine with fresh pencils and notebooks. But Providence’s new experiment — a standalone Virtual Learning Academy — debuted to widespread derision, as elementary school teachers got rosters of 52 students the Friday before school started, and hundreds of families said they weren’t able to log in on day one. It quickly became clear Providence does not employ enough teachers to staff both the VLA, with its 6,500 students, and all the in-person classrooms at the same time — middle school teachers are presently doing both — and there are more than 1,000 families still hoping to get into the virtual academy. District leaders promised improvements are in the works. Meanwhile, Providence reported an uptick in teacher absences the first week, an issue I’ll be watching closely statewide given the existing shortage of substitute teachers. It’s too soon to say after one week whether all the precautions schools have taken prove enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19; there have been 48 cases spread across 13 different K-12 schools statewide, with 19 of those people entering school buildings ‘during their infectious period,’ according to the Health Department. Based on the timing, health officials say most of those people likely contracted coronavirus before school started, so it will take another week or two to see if the virus is spreading from person-to-person inside schools and buses.”

9. Rhode Island’s moment in the spotlight at the Democratic National Convention certainly made an impression. … Exhibit A, a tweet by The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel: “One month after the conventions, what do you remember from it? My job is to follow it closely so I can recall stuff like Madison Cawthorn standing to salute, but I wonder if the average viewer taps out at ‘the Rhode Island calamari guy.'” … Exhibit B, via Politico’s Huddle newsletter earlier this week: “SQUID PRO QUO — Rep. David Cicilline will be providing Rhode Island-style calamari — the breakout star of the Democratic National Convention — to his colleagues today, your Huddle host has learned. The dinners will also include clam chowder and an almond frosted dessert, and will be individually wrapped and available for pick-up right after votes. ‘We know you heard about it at the virtual DNC convention,’ the invite states. ‘Now swing by on Monday night after votes and try it out for yourself!’ Cicilline, who chairs the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, is currently locked in a three-way race for assistant speaker. But don’t worry: sources exclusively tell your Huddle host that this is absolutely *not* a ploy to bribe his colleagues for votes. Just a pure passion for fried seafood appetizers. Nothing fishy here!”

10. Speaking of David Cicilline, it looks like he won’t be retiring to Martha’s Vineyard anytime soon. In late July Cicilline sold a 3.3-acre plot of land in Chilmark that he’d owned for a number of years; he got $602,700 for it, a bit less than his initial asking price of $629,000.

11. Sean McElwee, the influential progressive thinker and Data for Progress founder, remains very frustrated about the outcome of the Massachusetts 4th Congressional District primary, per this excerpt from a new profile of McElwee by The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey: “A more recent example helps illustrate what’s at stake when progressives fail to coalesce behind a single candidate. In the early-September Democratic primary to replace Representative Joe Kennedy in Massachusetts, McElwee and Data for Progress backed the progressive candidate Jesse Mermell, a former aide to Governor Deval Patrick, while other leftists supported Ihssane Leckey, a Democratic Socialist McElwee dismissed as a ‘poster’ — someone who is deeply immersed in the politics of Twitter. Of the two, polls showed that Mermell was much better positioned to win, but Leckey didn’t drop out, and leftists continued to campaign hard for her. On September 1, Mermell lost the primary by just 1% to Jake Auchincloss, a former Republican political organizer. ‘This is exactly why we need to take this seriously,’ McElwee told me. The far left ‘spent the whole campaign bashing Mermell …’ he trailed off. ‘God, I’m gonna be pissed about that forever.'”

12. Not great: Rhode Island’s 12.8% unemployment rate last month was the second highest in the country, topped only be Nevada at 13.2%. Massachusetts by contrast saw its jobless rate drop by nearly 5 percentage points in August, to 11.3%, after previously leading the list. The unprecedented disruption caused by the pandemic means the labor market data should be treated with a bit of extra caution, but it’s still enough to alarm longtime Rhode Island policy hand Gary Sasse. “Based on what RI accomplished during the good times I am concerned that too much of our growth was in low-wage jobs and industries that could make economic recovery and job growth relatively more problematic, to say nothing about our demographics,” Sasse wrote in an email. “I still have nightmares over the Great Recession when our unemployment rate was near the top for a while.” Still, he added, “one month does not make a trend, so we need to watch what happens very carefully.”

13. Home prices in Rhode Island continue to rocket upward. The median single-family house went for $333,164 in August, a nearly 13% jump from a year earlier, according to the Rhode Island Association of Realtors. Prices have been climbing on an annual basis for 43 straight months now, exacerbating what was already a major affordability crisis in the state. And new construction remains stagnant, with building permit activity little improved since the Great Recession. The situation “is getting worse,” the United Way’s Cortney Nicolato tweeted Wednesday. “RI is more than 25K units of affordable housing short of demand. That means RI’ers have to buy or rent more expensive housing. We have too many RI’ers making impossible choices bc of housing.” It’s no different in Massachusetts, where the median single-family house is now going for $475,000; The Boston Globe reported this week on Millennials struggling to buy their first homes.

14. The CARES Act has its critics, but for Lifespan it was a godsend.

15. Bill Bartholomew talks with 12 News co-anchors Kim Kalunian and Brian Yocono about their new 4 p.m. weekday newscast.

16. PBN’s Mary MacDonald goes deep on East Providence’s waterfront redevelopment debate.

17. John Harris on the five secrets of Bob Woodward’s journalistic success.

18. Soon, Queen Elizabeth II may no longer be the head of state in Barbados.

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Senate primary winners Tiara Mack and Cynthia Mendes; House Minority Leader Blake Filippi. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both our weekend shows on iTunes — get the Newsmakers podcast here and the Executive Suite podcast here — and radio listeners can catch them back-to-back Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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